The Jointer

The Jointer: a woodworker’s best friend.

Every craft has an essential tool, the device that performs a function that no other can. In woodworking, that tool is the jointer. At least that’s what I learned after spending a few evenings on Woodworking Talk. I’ve recently come back to working with wood in a serious way, and the fates, it seems, are conspiring to keep me here for a while.

My new 8″ Inca jointer, picked up on Craigslist for $180.

Jointer basics

If you’re a writer who doesn’t also work with wood, here’s a quick primer. The jointer prepares a piece of wood for every other tool it may encounter until a project is complete. Running a length of wood over the jointer knife evens and straightens the edge or face of the board, which provides a perfectly level surface to reference for all other cuts to the wood.

Not so essential in carpentry or framing, though some may argue otherwise (and for the record I think they’re more right than wrong). But even if the carpenter doesn’t need a jointer, any furniture or cabinetmaker is lost in the woods without one. Novice woodworkers, you’ve been warned.

A writer’s jointer. What is it?

If you read Writer Unboxed, Jane Friedman’s blog, or Porter Anderson’s Ether posts, you’ve likely come across the old saw (had to, sorry) that there are as many different ways of writing as there are writers. Assuming there is no universal method to the writing craft, can we at least point to a universal tool that all writer’s employ? What unassailable advice can we share with novice writers?

One miscut on a piece of expensive hardwood may cost time, money, and frustration. But how many false starts can new writers suffer before they heave their desks out the window and take up paint-by-number art, or something less likely to eviscerate their very being when it doesn’t work out quite the way they’d hoped?

My jointer: Character building

James Hetfield, singer, lyricist, and guitarist for Metallica, is famous for his line “If you don’t have a riff, you don’t have a song.” I think the same is true of characters for writing. They are the heartwood of the craft, and without them, without real flesh and blood entities reflected in your prose, you just don’t have a story.

There are arguments to be heard against character building before you begin writing. They tend to go like this:

  • I don’t want to force my characters into their roles
  • I want to let my characters tell me who they are.

My favorite version of this comes from Stephen King in his must read On Writing

  • “I can’t think of a more boring way to write.”

Each of these points has value, sure. But just like a woodworker will consider the shape, grain, and curve of each piece in a project, and how those pieces fit together, writers need to examine the interlocking lives of their characters before setting down to write.

I’m not talking about whittling down every little scrap of protruding material and defining a character such that they cannot move from the role they’ve been cast in. That just produces flat, motionless fiction. And I can’t think of a more boring thing to read. I’m proposing, instead, that we define one face or edge, so we have a solid reference point to build from. As the story grows, the character should grow as well. Events and choices will cut away at the character’s life, leaving us with a new shape, a different view of the grain, perhaps a stain to the finish.

For my part, I like to begin with my characters’ motivations, a fairly common approach that you’ll find (or should find) at the beginning of any fiction writing course. Without someone who wants something, you can’t have conflict arise when that something is taken away or blocked from being had. And without conflict, you can’t have resolution (there are no problems, so what’s to resolve?). And without resolution, you end up with a sort of wibbly-wobbly mish-mash of scenes where, yes, THINGS ARE HAPPENING, but not things that really tell a story so much as they tell you how not to write a story. And yes, I’ve read a book like that.

So what steps do you take in preparing your characters before you write? Is there another approach to beginning a story that feels more like a “jointer” for your craft? Please leave a comment below. Thanks!

About ajsikes

I am a freelance editor and author of speculative fiction in the dark/weird vein. My editing style is best described as nurturing. I treat each customer with the same respect and consideration regardless of the quality of their writing, and always aim my comments at helping writers improve and strengthen their work. For more information, please visit me at my website.
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7 Responses to The Jointer

  1. Pingback: Workhorses | Dovetails

  2. Brickley says:

    I think there are two ways to go about writing interesting characters. One would be with clearly defined characters in an interesting and developed world (George RR Martin, nearly every fantasy writer ever… etc) and then having characters that are almost blank slates but with clear motives (Stephen King, Haruki Murakami). Both was are fantastic approaches I think, but they both come with their own issues. I’m working on the second one, and it involves a lot of time spent on “what should he do?!” where I think the Martin-esque writers never have that problem. Martin’s problems are probably with research and keeping true to his own mythos.
    I dig the new blog. I’m looking to learn some practical skills over the next few years. I’m hoping to change the way I interact with the world around me. I’ll need some help, Aaron.

    • ajsikes says:

      H-Man, thanks for stopping by! Great distinction you draw there, and I agree. In my reply to Vaughn’s comment, I confessed to not having done enough work with my jointer before setting down to write, and now, like you, I’m going back and looking for that smooth edge to work from for each of my players. Still, I prefer the blank slate/clear motive approach.

      In the fantasy I’ve read, the characters are almost impossible to get mixed up. You know, without a doubt, when you’re reading about so-and-so, or this other so-and-so, because the author has done such a great job of illuminating that character for you. And as you say, there’s a limitation there. Once you put such a solid image on the page, it’s incredibly difficult to deviate. Doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but it really forces you to be creative with your character arcs.

      *SPOILER ALERT*

      Maybe that’s why so many of GRRM’s characters get whacked. šŸ˜‰

      Practical skills are essential in life. There’s a whole movement, small though it may be, called re-skilling. I call it “Learning to be Amish” with tongue only slightly planted in cheek. We’ve started canning and preserving over here, and I’m doing my woodworking, some metalwork, too. Whatever you’re looking to pick up, I’m more than happy to lend a hand.

  3. Huzzah! The blog looks great!

    And it’s a really apt analogy, Aaron. “I did a lot of my character development as I went along, but I think I’d now prefer your approach. “Iā€™m proposing, instead, that we define one face or edge, so we have a solid reference point to build from.” That sounds about right, and it seems like it would go a long way toward keeping your storyline from straying.

    I think my jointer might be my world-building process. For me it starts with the raw material. I love digging through the lumberyard, looking for the perfect pieces, then finding their grain, how the can work together perfectly. Then I work the project from there.

    What a fun blog idea! Keep ’em coming! šŸ™‚

    • ajsikes says:

      Hi Vaughn,

      Thanks for stopping by! I have to confess that my WIP “suffers” from the same kind of seat-of-my-pants character development. But, with that behind me, I’m starting my revisions looking for that smooth face or edge for each character and then going from there.

      World-building! Yes, an incredibly important part of the process and one I’m struggling with mightily. I’ve done a fair amount of culling through my scrap pile, digging around for the right bits and pieces of wood. It’s the fitting process that’s got me held up. That’s the subject for a later post though šŸ™‚

      ~Aaron

  4. I think I’m going to *really* like this blog Aaron.
    I would agree: even if a story is “about” an even or a place, or a thing, it’s the characters that make it enjoyable. I like your thought of starting with their motivations; for this is, in truth, what will drive their actions. Their personalities will develop from their motivations as well.

    • ajsikes says:

      Doug, thank you! It’s my turn to be humbled and honored.
      I had a whole section on non-fiction that I left out of this post, but your comment reminds me of where I wanted to go with it. Even if we’re talking about a technical manual, the author needs to be thinking about the character he or she is embodying as the voice of authority to those who will use the manual.

      Thanks again for coming by and commenting. šŸ™‚

      ~Aaron

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